SAN DIEGO - Many hospitals gather information on how patients fare after surgery, but that information is not usually available to the public.
So it is hard to compare hospitals when you're scheduling surgery. Consumer Reports just rated almost 2,500 hospitals for common surgical procedures, using a source of information that is available -- hospital-billing data.
Researchers analyzed three years of Medicare billing records with the help of the health care consulting firm MPA.
The analysis covered 27 kinds of common surgeries, including hip and knee replacements, back surgery and surgery to clear blocked arteries.
Consumer Reports rated hospitals based on the percent of Medicare patients undergoing surgery that died or were hospitalized longer than expected, which could indicate complications.
Enloe Medical Center in Chico, Calif., is one of the highest-rated hospitals. Administrators said its attention to detail led to dramatic improvements in recent years.
"Our patients are having fewer infections, and they're having a better experience," Dr. Marcia Nelson of Enloe Medical Center.
Consumer Reports listed three local hospitals in their highest category - Alvarado Hospital in San Diego, Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla and UC San Diego Health System in San Diego. These hospitals all got the best possible ratings.
Two hospitals were rated as 'better' - Fallbrook Hospital in Fallbrook and Pomerado Hospital in Poway.
Other hospitals were listed as 'neutral' - Scripps Memorial Hospital in Encinitas, Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, Parkview Community Hospital Medical Center in Riverside, Riverside Community Hospital in Riverside, Sharp Chula Vista Hospital Medical Center in Chula Vista, Sharp Coronado Hospital & Healthcenter in Coronado, Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa and Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego.
No hospital in San Diego County received Consumer Reports' lowest score.
Big-name hospitals that typically come out in the top spots in other ratings such as by U.S. News and World Report were rated lower by the Consumer Reports analysis.
For example, Cleveland Clinic, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Hospital for Special Surgeries had low ratings.
Some doctors pointed out certain hospitals routinely received more complex cases than others, leading to longer hospital stays. This would skew their Consumer Reports ratings, they said, punishing them for taking the tough cases.
"The problem I have with this is that teaching hospitals, which did poorly in this report, tend to have more complicated patients," said Dr. Richard Besser, chief health medical editor for ABC News.
"More complicated patients will tend to be in the hospital longer. Community hospitals, which did better in this report, often refer their more complicated cases elsewhere," Besser said.
Consumer Reports stands by its research, and hopes its ratings will motivate hospitals to set high standards and empower patients.
Dr. John Santa, Consumer Reports' medical adviser, said, "We know the ratings aren't a perfect measurement, but we think they're an important first step in giving patients the information they need to make an informed choice."
Consumer Reports says if you think you've been harmed in the hospital, contact your local or state health department. If you're on Medicare, get in touch with your state's Medicare Quality Improvement Organization.
To read more, visit the Consumer Reports website, but note, only subscribers can access the full ratings.(Mobile users: http://bit.ly/13AtVNz)